“Dad, I Think I Have ADHD”

4 ways parents can help their college student deal with ADHD

Marcia Morris M.D. Marcia Morris M.D.
College Wellness
Posted Sep 17, 2017

Your son, Marcus, a college freshman, calls you at the end of September; he is struggling in his courses. In high school, he was involved in several sports and seemed to do well in his classes without much studying. In college, he gave up sports to focus on his school work. He says he spends all his time in the library, but is only getting Bs and Cs. “I can read the same paragraph over and over, and nothing sticks. Every small noise distracts me. When I’m taking a quiz, I lose focus if someone is coughing in the room. I saw a therapist who thought I might have ADHD. What do you think?”

ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a hot button issue in the field of psychiatry. There are controversies about diagnosis – how do you really know someone has ADHD? There are concerns about treatment – are stimulants safe? The accurate diagnosis and comprehensive treatment of ADHD are critical because ADHD, if left untreated, can lead to poor school performance, driving mishaps, and substance abuse.

How Do You Know if Your Child Has ADHD?

While some students come to college already diagnosed with ADHD, others could be diagnosed during the college years. They might have gotten by in high school, but their compensatory strategies are not enough to meet the demands of college. Although not as common as anxiety or depression, ADHD still affects many students. In the last year, 6.1 percent of college students were diagnosed with or treated for ADHD.

If your child thinks he or she has ADHD, he or she should go on the campus counseling center’s website to locate ADHD assessment services. Some colleges will provide an evaluation for a reduced fee that might include psychological testing. Others might refer students off campus for the evaluation. Some psychiatrists might also make a diagnosis of ADHD without formalized psychological testing, but would spend a good amount of time talking with your child to see if diagnostic criteria are met. You and your child might be interviewed and asked to complete screening tests in the assessment process. ADHD does not develop out of the blue, but is usually present at a young age, so your feedback can be helpful.

What is ADHD? Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a syndrome of inattention and/or hyperactivity beyond what is age appropriate. Common symptoms of ADHD in college students include making careless mistakes on homework or tests, difficulty paying attention in class for long periods of time, the inability to focus on what one is studying, a sense of restlessness that can cause fidgeting or pacing, forgetting important appointments or losing keys, and difficulties keeping organized with school and bills.

For Marcus, his ADHD symptoms were present at a young age; he always had trouble focusing and sitting still. His father got him involved in sports, which enhanced his concentration. His mother structured his time so that after practice, he immediately started his homework. Away at college, Marcus is putting the time into his studies, but he just can’t seem to focus enough to absorb the material or do well on tests.

What will help Marcus? Will a stimulant be the answer to his problems?

ADHD Treatment in College Students

While medication can be beneficial for college students with ADHD, it is no panacea. There are other approaches your child can take, alone or in combination with medication, that will help manage ADHD symptoms.

1. Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be extremely helpful for adults with ADHD. While medication can increase attention, it may not necessarily impact organization and time management. CBT will teach your child how to break school work down into smaller parts and build in rewards for completion of tasks. Check if your child’s college offers individual or group therapy for ADHD.

2. Medication

I have seen students like Marcus experience dramatic improvements in attention and school performance after starting medication, which raises the levels of norepinephrine and/or dopamine to improve attention. These medications come in stimulant or nonstimulant form. Common stimulants are amphetamine/dextroamphetamine (Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin), along with their short- and long-acting formulations. It’s important your child take stimulants at the prescribed dose, because taking too much can increase anxiety and insomnia, and can cause high blood pressure, psychosis and even seizures. If you think your child is taking too much stimulant, discuss the dangers, and consider informing his or her health care provider. Discourage your child from sharing the medication with a friend. These medications should only be taken under the supervision of a medical provider. Unfortunately, 6.7 percent of college students have used stimulants not prescribed to them in the last year.

3. Lifestyle Approaches

Sleep, exercise, and avoidance of drugs can increase focus in people with ADHD. Marcus gets enough sleep, but he is not exercising nearly as much as he used to. I would recommend Marcus increase his physical activity by working out at the campus gym or participating in intramural sports. Marcus does not use drugs, but I’ve seen many people who frequently drink or smoke marijuana describe concentration problems. Encourage your child to avoid alcohol and drugs to get a true measure of his or her concentration.

4. The Disability Resource Center

The campus disability resource center will have many resources to help the young adult with ADHD succeed in college. The center may provide the following:

  • Coaching to help your child organize his or her time and study more effectively.
  • Group therapy to develop study skills.
  • A quiet place to take tests.
  • Additional time for tests.
  • Encourage your child to register for the campus disability resource center by obtaining a letter from his or her mental health provider documenting an ADHD diagnosis.

ADHD can be very frustrating for your college student. College requires a great deal of sitting, reading, and testing, but your child may better learn by engaging in an activity. In fact, most of my patients with ADHD excel in a work setting. They are creative, intuitive, outside of the box thinkers. A wonderful book by Edward Hallowell and John Ratey, “Delivered from Distraction,” describes the challenges, treatments, and triumphs of people with ADHD and is a must-read for anyone with ADHD and their loved ones. For Marcus and other students like him, exploring therapy, medication, lifestyle changes, and the disability resource center can change the trajectory of his academic career, turning struggles into success.

My book, The Campus Cure: A Parent's Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students, will be released in 2018.

©2017 Marcia Morris, All Rights Reserved

Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.

If you’re interested in reading about a particular topic regarding college wellness and your child’s mental health, please email me at marciamorrismd@gmail.com (link sends e-mail).